Yes, Jack Kerouac Still Matters

Babysitting my granddaughters the other day, my eye caught a headline in my son-in-law’s The Wall Street Journal, which lay on the marble kitchen countertop of their suburban home. It concerned long-deceased writer Jack Kerouac. His 100th birthday was March 12.

I thought it ironic that this birthday was recognized by a publication like The Wall Street Journal.  Kerouac’s lifestyle and philosophies seemed a conscious rejection of everything which that newspaper represents.

I also thought it ironic that he was born only a few months before my dad. The two of them couldn’t have been more unlike (and I’m forever thankful of that).

No American writer has experienced such a mixture of worship, mockery, and vilification than Kerouac. My belief is that most who hate him have read little if any of his novels or poetry. Some undoubtedly bring their political or cultural prejudices to the table.  His early critics were literary and social conventionalists. After the 1960s, his critics, most of them older than 30, saw him as dated and trite.

A few surprising facts to shake up the myths: Kerouac was plagued his entire life by guilt inflicted by the Catholic Church, as well as the early death of his older brother, Gerard, whom he worshipped; he had a deep understanding of classic world literature; he pioneered “spontaneous prose” but continually reworked what he spontaneously wrote; he hated being labeled the “King of the Beat Generation” and almost sued the producers of the exploitative TV show Route 66; unlike friend and fellow beat Allen Ginsberg, he was baffled by the hippie counterculture that both writers had inadvertently spawned; he (reputedly) watched TV airings of HUAC hearings while simultaneously smoking marijuana and cheering for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A less surprising fact: he wrote the Great American Novel. Maybe the most American.

Like many, I read On the Road while in college.  (I discovered it on my own; no university English professor would dare assign that book.)  And like all who read it, it kindled a brush fire under my ass, flinging me behind the wheel of my car to travel across America…twice…loving everything and everybody along the way.

On the Road got under my skin like no other book ever has.

Flash forward forty years, and I’m astonished at how and why I fell under Kerouac’s spell.  In 1979, when I first tentatively read Road (I’ve read it five times total, and several other Kerouac books), the author had been dead ten years.  Road had been in print for 22 years.  Kerouac’s (Sal Paradise’s) first car trip with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) was ten years before that.   

How could someone’s experiences from just two years after the end of World War II have such a visceral effect on a starry-eyed kid who, in two years, would be scratching his head over the popularity of a corporate phenomenon called MTV?  From Charlie Parker to Haircut 100? Are you fucking serious? The times, indeed, had a-changed.

Today, wrapped in the “forlorn rags of growing old,” I cringe when recalling some of the dangerous behaviors on my own road trip, in direct emulation of my hero.  (“Did I really do that?”)  But I was young, and young people play-act and do dumb things.  Thankfully, I didn’t get shot, or catch hepatitis or HIV…or end up a morose alcoholic, living with his mother, dead in central Florida at age 47.  Significantly, neither am I the poet Kerouac was.

I probably took the emulation bit somewhat farther than most—I kept my paperback copy of Road in the glovebox of my ’79 Chevy Impala as motel rooms store copies of the Holy Bible—but that doesn’t negate the fact that I had a fantastic time trying to emulate him, and would never trade in that naivety. 

I have flashes of that old sensation: anticipating leaving home to plunge into the red-orange glow of the West when I was 23.  It was the openness of possibility and discovery, of being young and unencumbered, of experiencing freedom in America for the first time.

I haven’t done research, but I wonder how many college kids or grown-up kids today read On the Road.  I’m afraid to find out. I don’t think it matters. That book has made a permanent imprint.

They look and talk differently today, but young people still have Kerouac in their veins, cell technology notwithstanding, and even if they don’t know it and can’t verbalize their motivations. I met them last year while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. They’re willing to, at least for a while, reject Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  They’re old enough yet bold enough to chance a great adventure and love everybody and everything along the way.  Crazy enough to dirt-bag one of America’s trails, or start a rock band, or follow a band around the country, or suspend time while suspending themselves by rope against a rock face.

In six weeks, at the A.T. trailhead at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, I’ll join them again.  (I defy the golf course and fishing rod.)  It won’t be the same as when I was 23, but I can still capture shards of that fading feeling. I’ve got God on my side, and “don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”

Those of us in the know are still with you, Jack.  Belated Happy 23rd Birthday.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

“A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam”—Book Review

Fifty years ago this June 9, John Vann died when the helicopter he was riding in crashed in central Vietnam.

The anniversary coincides with my reading Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book (published 1988) about Vann and the Vietnam War.  This monumental work is 800 pages-worth of small print.  As with after my reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (click here), I figure all that labor deserves to bear some fruit, even if only a few dried raisins on WordPress.  Thus, my review.

Who was John Paul Vann?  He was a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who arrived in Vietnam in 1962 soon after the Kennedy administration began sending military “advisors” there.  Vann was one of a handful who early on criticized U.S. strategy.  He left the army in cloudy circumstances but returned to ‘Nam in 1965 as a civilian U.S. Operations Mission (USOM) director right when Gen. William Westmoreland and the Johnson administration began ramping up America’s failed war with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

John Vann

Vann tried to convince Washington that the U.S.-built Diem regime in South Vietnam was corrupt; that Diem’s army (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN) was afraid of confrontation; that the American-backed Strategic Hamlet Program (isolating Vietnamese hamlets with barbed wire to repel the Viet Cong) was counterintuitive; that U.S. commanders were fudging the numbers; and that America’s war-of-attrition strategy would ultimately fail.

Neil Sheehan was one of the first American reporters in Vietnam.  He covered the war for its duration, first as a UPI correspondent, then as a reporter for The New York Times.  Sheehan and other Vietnam journalists, like David Halberstam and Peter Arnett, admired Vann.  Vann didn’t bullshit the reporters.  He told it like he saw it, warts and all, despite the career risk.  He exhibited a professional courage unusual for most Vietnam-era military and civilian protagonists.

Before writing this book, Sheehan was most known for obtaining the Pentagon Papers from RAND Corporation “whiz-kid” and a former protégé of Vann’s, Daniel Ellsberg.  Publication of a portion of the Papers in the Times revealed among other things that four presidential administrations, primarily Johnson’s, had systematically lied to and misled the American public about their intentions in Vietnam.  The Pentagon Papers became a First Amendment cause célèbre.  Sheehan died January 7, 2021.

____________________

Sheehan writes in a direct, declarative style undoubtedly honed by his years as a wire reporter and war correspondent.  He doesn’t succumb to the temptation of hyperbole.  There are no exclamation points or sarcasms, despite the black-comic nature of what he observed in Vietnam.  Because he was there, he occasionally uses first-person narration.

Neil Sheehan (photo Frédérick Reglain/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Once—in an exchange so staggering it beggars belief— Sheehan managed to discuss the war with Westmoreland, the second of three commanding generals. He politely asked the general about the extraordinary number of civilian casualties.  The civilians—South Vietnamese peasants, including women and children—were ostensibly those whom the U.S. was trying to save from Communism.  They were being killed, maimed, and made homeless by U.S. bombs and artillery shelling.

Westmoreland responded: “Yes, Neil, it is a problem…but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?”

Vann’s story parallels the war’s history.  He’s the human focal point of the book; however, he’s far from a choirboy.  He was a philanderer who exploited his family-man status to burnish his own résumé.  He manipulated people and lied to them, even young and vulnerable girls, victims of Vann’s pathological sexual hunger.  Vann amply contributed to a familiar by-product of the war: illegitimate pregnancies, abortions, and child abandonment. Sheehan uncovers more than one dark secret about Vann’s past.  The “bright shining lie” of the book title, taken from a direct quote by Vann about the war, has a double meaning.

Sheehan weaves Vann in and out of the larger story of America in Vietnam. He touches on a chilling capture and imprisonment of Vann’s partner Doug Ramsey, buried in the jungle for seven years.  He covers the significant Vietnam War battles: Ap Bac, Ia Drang, Khe Sanh, and the Tet and Easter Offensives. Vann tried to direct the first major confrontation at Ap Bac as an advisor to the incompetent ARVN.  It backfired.

When it became clear that full American intervention was required (total withdrawal was rejected, of course), the military strategy proved stupid and unnecessarily brutal. Westmoreland convinced the Johnson administration that a war of attrition would prevail, rather than Vann’s policy of South Vietnamese pacification (winning rural ”hearts and minds” through security, arms, training, and social reform). It was a “stomp-them-to-death” policy of bludgeoning the enemy with relentless matériel and manpower from the air and in the jungles, and it was a total cul-de-sac. After the war crescendoed with the 1968 Tet Offensive, President Richard M. Nixon continued these bludgeoning tactics by invading Cambodia (secretly in 1969, not-so-secretly in 1970) and with the 1972 “Christmas Bombings.”

Ho Chi Minh, 1946

The U.S. mistakenly tried to transfer WWII tactics to the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. There was little attempt to understand Vietnam history, culture, or Vietnamese soldiers’ perfection of guerrilla warfare for over 1,000 years. (The French had failed here, too.) Additionally, due to its monomaniacal hatred of Communism, the U.S. could not recognize that Ho Chi Minh and his followers were Nationalists first and Communists only second.

By the second decade after World War II, the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the U.S. armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity…American society had become a victim of its own achievement.  The elite of America had become stupefied by too much money, too many material resources, too much power, and too much success.

“A Bright Shining Lie,” page 285

Vann didn’t waver from his position on how the war should be fought.  Like everyone else in those innocent years of the early 1960s, including reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam, he believed that America had a moral obligation to “stem the Red tide” in Southeast Asia.  But while Halberstam, Ellsberg, ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and much of the rest of the world eventually recognized the folly of that tragic conflict (McNamara secretly), Vann clung to it like one of his many sex partners, and still believed, at least publicly, that it could be won.

A one-time dirt-poor Southern cracker, in Vietnam Vann transformed himself into ”The Most Interesting Man in the World.” He embraced President Richard M. Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization (gradually transferring combat roles back to South Vietnam), which incorporated Vann’s pacification ideas. Nixon in turn gave him smiles and pats on the back. He both finagled and earned stars to put on his résumé. His fighting instincts and courage were beyond reproach. He found a home in that land of atrocities and waste. Reading this book, one gets the impression he’d have been content if the war continued forever.

____________________

Vann’s June 1972 burial at Arlington National Cemetery was a who’s who of principal players in the conflict, civilian and military.  Sheehan was there.  When he looked around and saw the faces, it struck him how Vann’s scarred life and tragic death were a metaphor for the war itself.  Vann’s funeral, in fact, was the genesis for Sheehan’s book.

William Westmoreland

(Spoiler Alert)…Vann’s discarded family was at the funeral, too.  Afterwards, they met with Nixon in the Oval Office.  Nixon was to award Vann a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Vann’s second of four sons, Jesse, had just been drafted.  Earlier that day he’d torn his draft card in two and placed one half on his father’s casket.  He intended to hand the other half to Nixon.  He was talked out of doing this only at the last second.

The president had been alerted to what Jesse might do.  After Jesse reluctantly shook hands with Nixon, the president offered a muffled “Thanks.”  He’d been saved from embarrassment.

The image of an uncomfortable Nixon greeting a 21-year-old boy whom he’d tried to send to Vietnam—a boy whose father had just been wasted by the war Nixon was prolonging—is hard to stomach.  But it happened.  There’s a photo of the Vann family with Nixon in the Oval Office.

Of the eleven people lined up for that photo, Nixon is the only one smiling.

A Salty Side Trip to Key West

Some places are more “salty” than others. Not surprisingly, they all have a close relationship with water…with the fringes. Key West, Florida, U.S.A. is one of them.

Key West is the southernmost island in the chain of islands that dangles like a string of pearls off the southern tip of Florida.  My wife Lynn and I visited last month while scouting retirement locations on the mainland (see previous post).

Residents call their tiny speck in the ocean the “Conch Republic.”  (Conchs are small, meaty, edible monstrosities that find homes in those shells you hold to your ear to hear the ocean.)  In 1982, after a stress-inducing U.S. Border Patrol roadblock, locals became angry and seceded from the United States.  Sort of. It was a mock secession, but residents use the incident now to boost tourism.  Key West even flies its own micro-nation flag. These folks obviously have a great sense of humor.

For such a small place, Key West has a lot going for it.  Here’s a quick tour:

L to R: Dave, Robin, Lynn, Anonymous

We stayed with friends Dave and Robin at the condo they rent every year.  I met this super-friendly retired couple while hiking the Appalachian Trail last year.  (Their permanent home is in the mountain village of Hiawassee, Georgia.)  Although we only had a brief meeting on trail, we hit it off. They invited us to stay with them, and now we’re like old friends.

The first night the four of us ate at Half Shell Raw Bar, where I satisfied my craving for seafood with raw oysters and conch fritters.  The following morning, Dave and I hiked around the island for several hours while Robin and Lynn hung out at the condo.

Then Lynn and I embarked on a whirlwind (hurricane) tour of tourist spots.  First we saw the Harry S. Truman Little White House where, beginning in 1946, President Harry Truman spent 175 days of his presidency.  His famous desk plaque that says “The Buck Stops Here” is on one of the desks.  Other presidents, dating to William Howard Taft, have also stayed here…some, like 45, who pass the buck more than others.

Truman Little White House

Next, we had nachos and Key lime pie (a KW essential) at the original Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Duval Street, which ranks with Bourbon Street, Times Square, and Court Street at my alma mater (Ohio University) for party spirit.  Although I’m closer to Deadhead than Parrothead, food is what mattered at this moment, and Buffett’s came through for us (largest pile of nachos—a veritable food castle—I’d ever seen).  Also, friendly service by an actual lifetime resident…a Conch, not a recently arrived Freshwater Conch.

(NOTE: authentic Key lime pie is always pale yellow, never green.  Don’t get the wrong color!)

The next stop was the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A.  We actually hit this place by accident while strolling around.  The spot is identified by a large, concrete, buoy-type structure painted an ugly red, black, and yellow.  (The structure was vandalized this past New Year’s Eve by two drunken tourists who couldn’t get laid).

Musician Jimmy Buffett…
…and Margaritaville. Anyone seen a shaker of salt?

It’s important to know that this is not the southernmost point of the U.S., merely the contiguous U.S.  (The true southernmost location in the U.S. is the south tip of the island of Hawaii.)  It’s also worth noting that the concrete buoy is designed merely for tourist purposes.  (The actual southern tip of Key West is a half mile west at the Naval Air Station.)  Also, while advertised as only “90 miles from Cuba,” the distance is actually 94 miles; four miles is a lot of ocean to dog-paddle.

Tourists lining up at false southernmost point

As John Lennon sang, “Just gimme some truth.”

But I guess a lot of people choose to ignore truth, because they dutifully line up in sweltering heat to have their photo taken while posing next to this large, ugly, recently vandalized, painted cement buoy.

Continuing on, we passed the Key West AIDS Memorial at White Street and Atlantic Boulevard near Higgs Beach (one of two sand beaches on the island).  Key West has long been known as a community sympathetic to gays, and the memorial has engraved names of 1,240 people in the Florida Keys who died from complications of AIDS.  It was the first municipal tribute to AIDS victims in the world.

Speaking of profound tragedies, further down is a memorial to Africans who in 1860 were rescued by the U.S. Navy from a Cuban-bound slave ship, the Wildfire.  Despite their rescue, over 300 died from disease and malnourishment and were buried in a mass grave beneath the sand.

I found these last two memorials more interesting than the Southernmost Point. And, of course, there were fewer people.

***

The following day, Dave joined me in a jaunt to the Ernest Hemingway House on Whitehead Street.  Here’s where one of America’s greatest writers lived from 1931-39.  “Papa” wrote several long and short works here, including his popular short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“You might as well take my last cent,” a disgusted Hemingway said as he thrust a penny at his second wife, Pauline.  She’d recently built a pool that was two-and-a-half times the cost of the property.  (Guess she thought this was cute, because she preserved the penny in concrete.)  And lazing and prowling around the property are dozens of six- and seven-toed (polydactyl) cats.  It’s still speculative that the felines are descended from a Hemingway cat named “Snowball.”

A writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.

Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway study. He wrote in a separate annex.

Southern-Gothic playwright Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also lived in Key West, though we missed a visit to his house.  We also need to someday submerge ourselves in the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum.  Fisher was an American treasure hunter who, in 1973, discovered the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which had sunk in Florida waters in 1622.

That’s about it, mainlanders.  Hope you enjoyed the tour, and next time you eat Key lime pie, make sure it’s not green.

Coastal scene, Key West

New Murder Mystery Unveiled!

Any James Bond acolytes out there? Any fans of the movie Deliverance? Ever wonder what it might be like if Bond was dropped into one of those canoes in Deliverance? Maybe sipping shaken martinis between Jon Voight and Ned Beatty?

Hard to envision, I know. But I made an attempt (sort of) in my latest book, called Black Jackknife: A Nick Montaigne Mystery, my first attempt at fiction. I’m not presuming to imply my main character stacks up with an Ian Fleming creation, nor that my Georgia Appalachian Trail murder site can rival the harrowing, claustrophobic Southern woods feel of Deliverance. But I think my book has at least a few good moments.

Intrigued? Cool! I’d love for you to read BJ and let me know your thoughts. Just click the link below or top right for either a paperback or ebook copy. It might make a great Christmas present for someone…including yourself!

And I’ll tell you what: to sweeten the pot, I’ll mail a free updated paperback copy of my hiking memoir Evergreen Dreaming to the first reader who correctly guesses the identity of the killer (or killers) BEFORE chapter 18. No cheating, now!

Lastly, I welcome reviews of BJ on either Amazon or Goodreads, either positive or negative. Even if only a few words. (“Thumbs up,” “Best book I ever read,” “Only book I ever read,” “Beats a sharp stick in the eye”…whatever.)

Hope you enjoy my book. And thanks, fellow Longitudinals!

Here’s the link:

I Would Prefer Not To

Urinals

“Can you stop by?”

This was the Skype message I recently received from my supervisor. Those of us Bartlebys who have worked in an office environment and have been unlucky recipients of such a message from the boss (aka “The Big Cheese”) know that, no matter how cool and self-assured one might be in other situations, there’s always a quickening of the pulse when such a message is received.

It used to be a phone call, or a head appearing in one’s office doorway. Then it was email. Now it’s Skype.

I was half-tempted to type back “I would prefer not to.”  But I sold out and typed “OK.”

As I walked toward his office, I wondered if this would be one of those “Shut the door” type conversations. Sure enough, it was.

“Shut the door,” he said abruptly. “Have a seat.” How polite of him. My heartrate had by now increased dramatically.

“Don’t get excited,” the big cheese assured me, unsuccessfully.

In addition to words and voice tone, body language is also very revealing in these encounters. And at this moment, his body language indicated that, yes, this would be yet another session of existential revelation, explanation, justification, and eventual atonement.

My body language indicated that my heart was now pumping enough blood to cause the front of my shirt to vibrate like the skins on a drumhead at a Hottentot wedding celebration. So it was kind of difficult to instruct my involuntary cardiac muscle not to “get excited.”

He leaned over his desk, folded his arms, and looked at me with solemnity over the top of his wire glasses.

“Just answer me…”

He paused for dramatic effect. I waited with bated breath to see if I would be granted or denied admittance through the Gates of Heaven.

“…did you or did you not forget to flush the urinal yesterday?”

I was busted. Oh, God. I’ve always had a feeling that one day I might slip up.

Indeed, I had made a visit to the bathroom yesterday. And after doing my “business,” I followed the same ritual I always did. I walked to the sink, washed my hands in lukewarm water (for some odd reason, this one bathroom doesn’t provide hot water), dried my hands with a small paper towel…then walked across the tile, grasped the door handle with said paper and opened the door, then flipped the used paper in the nearby waste can.

However…on this one occasion…I forgot to use said paper to push handle on said urinal before exiting said bathroom. And I remembered that an anonymous gentleman was, at that moment, conducting his own business in a parallel urinal. He must have narc’ed (squealed) on me.

(You ladies might be interested to know that men’s public bathrooms are perhaps the most unsociable places on earth. Sinks are acceptable locations for idle conversation, although men being men, conversation is infrequent. Urinals are definitely off-limits. Conversation occasionally occurs, but eye contact is forbidden, unless there’s loud rock ‘n’ roll or football going on, and the men are drunk.)

“Uh…yes,” I stammered. “I mean…I did forget. Is that a big deal?”

The cheesy one sat back in his swivel chair and, with a doleful expression not unlike an elderly basset hound, stared at his hands, now folded in his lap.

“Always…” he began, “always flush the urinal. This incident has reached Rosemary.”

Rosemary is the Human Resources Director. She’s a petite, attractive woman about 30 years old. Half my age. Her nickname is “Rottweiler.” I’m assuming she earned this nickname because, not only does she have a pet Rottweiler (a dog with a reputation for “territorial aggressiveness”), but every time an employee leaves the company, she sends out a company-wide email with the employee’s photo stating “John Doe is no longer employed at (the company). Should he visit our facility, he must be treated as a visitor.” This cold declaration is followed by various security requirements that employees must follow—and John Doe must adhere to—if John Doe visits former facility.

I can understand taking away an employee’s electronic badge before he leaves. But I’ve never understood either the necessity or the effectiveness of these company-wide emails.

Rosemary not only hires people, handles their benefits (paid time off, 401K, health, and life itself), processes their resignations, delivers news of their layoffs and firings, but after employee has vanished, she alerts the workforce that former employee is, essentially, persona non grata. The only analogy to this last action that I can think of is someone who might desecrate a gravesite.

Rosemary may be petite and attractive, but she has more power and influence than the company president. Think a smaller version of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But getting back to our little drama…I expressed atonement to Herr Limburger for my thoughtless action the previous day. Then, with trepidation, I asked him if I needed to visit Rosemary.

“No, that won’t be necessary,” he said, just as solemn as when I first sat down. “Just make sure it doesn’t happen again. There will, of course, be mention of this incident in your next performance appraisal. But your employment situation is still secure.”

Whew. I staved off a company-wide email from Rosemary.

Cheesy one apologized for, as he termed it, the “brouhaha.” I told him “That’s okay, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”

“Hey, don’t apologize,” he said. “This is my job.” Indeed, it is.

I left his office. I felt a strong urge to visit the scene of the crime and flush all the urinals, as a sort of psychological purging.

I also felt a strong urge to determine who the asshole was who narc’ed on me.  Then decided “screw it…I would prefer not to.”  And, then, a revelatory moment:

I pinpointed the reason for Rosemary’s high-security emails.

 

bartelby

(Bill Bragg, 2012/foliosociety.com)

 

An Earth Day Tribute to Wallace Stegner

Photo by Mary Stegner

While laid up after my surgery, I read several books. One is a biography of writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. This book was sent to me by my WordPress friend Cincinnati Babyhead. (One day I’ll have to ask about his pen name, considering Cincinnati is a long way from his domicile in Vancouver, British Columbia.) Babyhead had read my magnum opus Evergreen Dreaming, and saw that I had included an epigraph by Stegner.

(This is one of the great things about blogging: establishing a “cyberspace” relationship with a stranger based on a mutual interest. Not to mention sharing, and learning. Not to mention that, occasionally, some strangers will urge me to place my head in closer proximity to where my surgery was.)

Anyway, when I inserted that epigraph in my book, I knew very little about Stegner. My only prior knowledge came from the pages of Sierra Magazine. I’m a member of the environmental organization Sierra Club, as was Stegner for many years, and the club’s member periodical often features perceptive essays and quotes by him.benson book

I find it a minor crime that the name “Wallace Stegner,” and his achievements, are not known to more people…including me, for a long while. So here’s a short tribute to him, with gratitude toward Vancouver’s Babyhead.

***

Most people have heard of Ken Kesey. He wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then gained infamy as a Merry Prankster riding a psychedelic bus through the pages of Tom Wolfe’s classic of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). But many don’t know that Kesey studied creative writing at Stanford University under Wallace Stegner (as did writers Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Evan S. Connell, and many others).

Other than producing some of America’s finest literature, Kesey and Stegner couldn’t be more unlike.

Wallace Stegner was born in rural Iowa in 1909. He had a brutish, bullying father who yanked the family from one place to the next in search of quick, easy wealth. (Stegner’s 1943 novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain examines this restless quest.) Stegner’s most vivid childhood memories were formed in an isolated town called Eastend, in flat and rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned hard work and how to hunt and fish. He learned how a cold prairie wind could slice through a person like a sickle through a snowdrift. He learned loneliness and deprivation, but also resourcefulness. A small boy on an immense prairie under limitless sky, Stegner early on gained a respect for the awesome majesty of the outdoors.

George Stegner zigzagged his family across the American West until settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Young Wallace was able to find some permanence here. He excelled in school and on the tennis court, and loved to hike and camp in the sagebrush canyons and gingerbread flanks of the Wasatch Range of the Rockies. Although taking a dim view of the Mormon faith (and “denominational narrowness” in general), he made many Mormon friends and gained a lifelong respect for their solidity of character, love of family, and emphasis on roots, eventually writing two acclaimed books on Mormon history. This idea of the importance of history and roots would crop up again and again in Stegner’s work.

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

The young writer (photo: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation)

He attended University of Utah, then earned a master’s and doctorate at University of Iowa, where he met Mary Page, who would be his wife for 60 years. While in school, he learned his father had left his mother while she had cancer. (George Stegner later killed himself, after murdering his mistress.) For the rest of his life, Wallace battled the ghost of his father, while simultaneously drawing on memories of his mother’s affection and strength.

Wallace and Mary eventually moved to Vermont, where he honed his writing at the famous Bread Loaf writers retreat, which also counted Robert Frost, Willa Cather, and Bernard DeVoto among its faculty. He fell in love with the untrammeled green beauty of Vermont and simplicity and self-sufficiency of its residents. He became close friends with the prickly but brilliant DeVoto, and later wrote an acclaimed biography of him, The Uneasy Chair (1974).

While many writers concentrate on one form—fiction, nonfiction, short stories, poetry, history, biography—Stegner refused to be limited. He won three O. Henry Awards for short fiction, a National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976 novel), and a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971 novel). His biography of Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1953), has been called “one of the most influential books ever written about the West.”

In 1946 he founded the creative writing program at Stanford University, and mentored hundreds of student-writers for the next 25 years. He retired in 1971, wearied by students (like Kesey) who he felt undervalued the virtues of diligence, and who were obsessed with the “Now” and had scant appreciation of history, tradition, permanence, and place, in either their lifestyles or writing.

Alaska 1965_Wisconsin Historical Society

With wife Mary in Alaska, 1965 (photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Some have ranked Stegner with John Steinbeck. He’s been called the “dean of Western writers.” His admirers argue he’s not better known due to an elitist Eastern literary press. For years, The New York Times snubbed him. In fact, after he won the Pulitzer for Angle of Repose, the newspaper clumsily hinted he was undeserving.  (On the 100th anniversary of Stegner’s birth, the Times did offer a small mea culpa.)

And while Wikipedia lists Stegner’s many awards and publications, its biography of him seems woefully brief. For proof, compare Stegner’s Wikipedia bio to 25-year-old pop star Justin Bieber’s. (On second thought, don’t ruin your day.)

While this woeful scribbler has shamefully yet to become acquainted with Stegner’s fiction, biographies, or histories, I am familiar with his articles, having read his collection, The Sound of Mountain Water (1969). One of the essays here is Stegner’s famous public letter urging passage of the Wilderness Act, eventually made law in 1964. In this letter, Stegner—who in the 1950s assisted David Brower of the Sierra Club in blocking construction of Echo Park Dam and saving Dinosaur National Monument—writes eloquently:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

Wallace Stegner’s accomplishments during his 84 years are beyond impressive. He was the first person to destroy the myth that the West is a land of rugged individualists, instead arguing it is a cooperative idea, and should be cherished and preserved rather than exploited by private interests. mountain waterHe was a novelist, biographer, Western historian, seminal environmentalist, and beloved teacher. He was special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He had a work ethic that makes most of us look like panhandlers.

He was also a man of principles. A liberal of the old-fashioned variety, when Stegner received a National Endowment for the Arts award not long before his death in 1993, he refused it on the grounds that the NEA was being manipulated by political conservatives. “People like Patrick Buchanan and Jesse Helms have been attacking it for a long time,” he said, “and the (G.H.W. Bush) administration played into the pressure…You can’t conduct arts with censors…”

Those who block dams, shatter myths, and spurn awards while standing on principle are rare birds, indeed, and deserve to be celebrated.

Happy Earth Day, Professor Stegner

STEGNER

(Photo: Associated Press)

 

Breaking News: EVERGREEN DREAMING Gets Notice in “Publishers Weekly”

Book Cover

I’m pleased to announce that my recent book, Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker (aka “Ed”), was selected for a review by the venerable trade magazine Publishers Weekly. Only a small number of self-published books are selected for such a review.

Publishers Weekly (PW) has been around since 1872 and primarily serves booksellers, libraries, publishers, and agents. The reviews are generally short plot summaries, and can be favorable or unfavorable. Fortunately, Ed’s review was favorable.

While I’m grateful to whomever read and reviewed Ed, I wish he or she had read the entire book instead of just the first section (my hike through Georgia and North Carolina). I also wish the reviewer had been more careful with relating the narrative, since there are a few mistakes.

Despite the mild quibbles, I’m still grateful for a positive review, and here is a replicate of it.  Thanks to all of you who bought Ed, for those who plan to, and for those not interested but who still visit longitudes!

Kurtz, a 55-year-old technical writer (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”), hikes from Georgia to North Carolina along the Appalachian Trail in this entertaining travelogue. His love for nature started as a teen camping with his family in the Blue Ridge Mountain; now, his wife, Lynn, supports him in his hiking endeavors, but worries about his quest at his age. Kurtz makes several friends along the way (among them, Dylan, a 24-year-old realizing his dream to hike the entire trail, who joins Kurtz for a couple days), and describes the scenery (“a long, flat stretch with lots of overhanging rhododrendon that offers a nice shady canopy”). Along the way, he argues for wilderness conservation, noting that only 3% of the 2,200-mile trail is designated wilderness and warning that open spaces are threatened. Kurtz also discusses his affinity for reading (“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), his love for the Beatles, his desire for hot water, and his reliance on sturdy walking sticks (one of which he names “Kip”)—and he always makes sure to call Lynn to share his experiences. Kurtz’s charming memoir encourages wilderness purists to chase their dreams, regardless of age.

PW

***** Birth Announcement *****

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Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker, a book that describes my mountain backpacking experiences of the last five years, has just been delivered via natural childbirth! (Twins, since there are both paperback and ebook versions.)

If you click here, or the link in “My Writing” above, you’ll be transported (beamed up?) to the book’s internet home. Once there, you can also visit my internet Author Page, which has some stuff about me, my other book, Bluejackets in the Blubber Room, and my next project.

I’ve listed various aunts and uncles in this book’s acknowledgement section. I wanted to recognize you who have supported my brain droppings for so long. (I couldn’t list everyone, and limited it to commenters, but I’m grateful to all who have visited longitudes in the past.)  And for you new folks…glad you dropped in for coffee, and I hope you stick around!

Suffice to say, this book is very “longitudinal.” I wanted Evergreen Dreaming to be enjoyable and easy to read, and I think you’ll recognize my voice and spirit. I’m not sure that’s good or bad. If it’s bad, please remember it wasn’t me, it was the muse that passed through me. (!)

Now, if you’d like to order and are conflicted on light-fantastic digital versus down-home paperback, here’s my view of the two formats, pros and cons:

Ebook: less expensive for you, convenient for transport and storage, and saves trees. God knows, we need trees. But cold and impersonal.

Paperback: puts more $$ in my pocket, and has the fonts and graphics I intended, plus a soft and velvety matte cover. You can also add an additional digital copy for only $1.99. Uses paper (trees) but it’s minimal due to print-on-demand. Adds to your “stuff” quotient, but more warm and personal.

Folks, I’m just appreciative of anyone who buys this book, new-style or old-style. I really hate this marketing stuff, since it’s not me, but my goal is to break even on this thing. (Unlike what happened with my more eggheady blubber book.)

Lastly, if anyone knows any qualified magazine or newspaper book critics, please let them know about Evergreen Dreaming. I think there may be a few magazines and newspapers that haven’t yet folded.

Now, I’ll try to get back to my regular rambles, reviews, and rants, with only sporadic info-mercials. Thanks again, everyone!

Pete (greenpete58)
Longitudes Press

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My New Book: Final Artwork

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Hello fellow bloggers and readers.  Some of you know that I’ve been writing a book.  Well, the artwork is finally completed!  I think the artist did a great job, and I’m looking forward to publication, which is right around the corner.

You folks are my biggest writing supporters, so I wanted you to know first (after my long-suffering wife, Lynn).  I’ll be providing updates as Evergreen Dreaming gets closer to publication.

Thanks, everybody, for hangin’ out here in longitudes with me!

The Craziest Meal I Never Had

dinner party

Not long ago, I was goofing around on YouTube, and I landed on an interview with a particular musician.  One of the interview questions was: “If you could have dinner with any three people, who would you invite?”

I think the interviewer was a high school student (probably on assignment for the school paper).  My first reaction was This is cute, but silly.”  Then I thought about it. Second thought, that’s a pretty good question.  It’s a fun way to identify a person’s root influences, especially if the interview subject decides to elaborate.  But I was a little shocked at one of the musician’s choices for dinner guest.

His first choice was John Lennon.  OK, I can agree.  Songwriting genius, witty, well-informed, candid, gift of gab.  If Lennon was my guest, I could easily see us (once I stopped trembling) enjoying our marshmallow pie while trading views on Brexit and sarcastic jibes about Sir Paul.

His second choice was someone I know nothing about.  But the third choice had me scratching my head: Miles Davis.

For those unfamiliar, Miles Davis was a legendary jazz trumpeter.  He was a gifted composer and improviser who broke musical barriers and influenced a generation of jazz musicians.  But despite being the king of “cool jazz,” he was reputedly as unpredictable as a white cop with a hemorrhoid.

Why would you invite a ticking time bomb to a dinner party, an occasion that’s supposed to be about relaxation and light repartee?  I can envision the exchange:

“Mr. Davis, I’m a big fan of yours.  In fact, Kind of Blue is my all-time favorite album.”

Then the sound of soup being slurped, with a few droplets splattered onto Davis’s oversized sunglasses. Followed by a string of raspy, mumbled curse words.

melville

Herman Melville

I mean, come on.  He’s a superb musician, yes, but isn’t this a waste of a dinner choice?  Then, of course, I thought about whom yours truly would invite.  And I have to admit: one of my choices would make Miles Davis look like Martha Stewart.

I wouldn’t hesitate to invite Herman Melville (author of Moby-Dick and other heavy shit).  He’s my favorite writer.  I’d love to probe Melville’s oceanic mind about the whiteness of the whale and Captain Ahab’s maniacal obsessions.  Maybe I could conveniently work into the conversation Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

I’d also invite Billy the Kid.  Even though he was a cold-blooded killer, the Kid was also a party animal with a great sense of humor.  He loved a good game of faro, and had an eye for the ladies.  And there’s only one authenticated photograph of him, so I’d like to see if he’s as buck-toothed and scatterbrained as he looks in the photo.

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Billy the Kid

But my third choice might send Herman and the Kid scurrying toward the door long before dessert is served: Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse (aka Tasunke Witko) was a war leader of the Oglala Lakota Sioux.  He was at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and helped fertilize the Montana hills with the bodies of Custer and the 7th Cavalry.  He was one of the last Plains Indians to surrender to the U.S. Army, and only did so because his people were starving.  Very spiritual, he experienced visions, and refused to allow his photograph to be taken.  He died in 1877, bayoneted in the back while being led to an army jail on a trumped-up charge.

Crazy Horse, for me, was a person of great integrity.  After all, he died for his people’s survival.  And since no one knows what he looked like, our dinner together would give me the opportunity to stare at him a lot.  Does he look like Rafael Nadal?  Or more like Ed Ames?  I can almost guarantee whom he doesn’t look like: smiling Chief Wahoo, the controversial cartoon mascot for the Cleveland Indians.

But how would our conversation go?  Assuming he understands and speaks English – and Herman and the Kid approve of his presence at the table – it would probably be very stilted.

So while my ever-tolerant wife serves the cocktails… whiskey for the Kid, rum for Herman, cold spring water for Crazy Horse, and Dogfish Head Midas Touch Golden Elixir ale for me… I begin to live out a longtime fantasy:

“Mr. Horse… I mean Mr. Witko… uh, sir… it’s truly an honor to sit with you.”

Silence.

“I don’t have any Indian pipe tobacco, but maybe after dinner we could dip into my humidor.  I think I still have a couple Cohibas from my excursion to Nogales a few years ago.”

More silence, as he gulps his water from a bison-hide flask.

“Ya know, I’ve heard that you have visions.  That’s really cool.  I don’t have any pharmaceuticals on hand, but my son lives in Colorado, and he might be able to parcel post a special package – ha-ha, if you know what I mean – for our next get-together.”

He glares at me, expressionless, without responding.  I feel a drop of perspiration roll from my armpit.

“Sir, I know you don’t like having your picture taken.  But my squaw has this gadget called an I-phone, and if I take your photo and you don’t like it, I can immediately delete it.”

He turns his head and gazes out the window at our autumn blaze maple.

Maple Tree

Autumn blaze maple tree (Acer rubrum)

Desperate for some assistance, I glance toward the Kid.  But his face is bright red, and his shoulders are shaking, as if he’s stifling laughter – and doing a poor job of stifling.

Then I pivot in my chair and glance toward Herman.  But Herman’s sitting erect, stroking his massive beard, and he appears buried in deep thought.

So before Herman has a chance to excuse himself to return to his kerosene lamp and his notes for “Billy Budd,” and before the Kid embarrasses me by doubling up with laughter and accidentally firing his Colt single-action revolver, I decide to divert attention from Crazy Horse.

“Hey, guys,” I carefully and surreptitiously maneuver.  “Whaddaya say we head into the den to check out my baseball card collection?”

But I quickly decide that this, too, is a bad idea.  I never imagined that entertaining my heroes for dinner could be so stressful.

“Honey, could you bring us another round of drinks… please??”

black hills

The Black Hills, South Dakota, where Crazy Horse lived and is (supposedly) buried